Whether for empowerment, expression or simply for comfort, undergarments play a powerful and pervasive role in the way we present ourselves to the world – and its influence is not to be underestimated. This week, as the unwritten codes of underwear comes under close scrutiny in an extensive new exhibition entitled Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at London’s V&A Museum, we consider some of the most iconic lingerie moments to be captured on screen – from Foxy Brown’s bra-cum-holster, to Sandra D’s sweet cotton nightgown.
Empire Records, 1995
When it comes to awkward strip scenes, Liv Tyler’s Corey surely sweeps the board with her bid to seduce famous (and decidedly seedy) pop star Rex Manning in 1995’s Empire Records. Determined to lose her virginity to “Sexy Rexy”, Corey corners him during his lunch break at the record store’s signing, revealing a red satin push-up bra and white frilly knickers and assuring him she’s “old enough”. The combination of an alluring bra (lent to her by her more experienced friend Gina) and oversized pants are a potent symbol of her conflicting emotions. It is a relief, albeit a cringe-inducing one, when – upon Rex’s unmoved unzipping of his trousers and declaration that he hopes she likes blue cheese (while suggestively shaking a bottle of salad dressing) – her teenage notions of romance are shattered and she flees the room.
The pyjama party thrown by Sandy, Frenchy, Jan, Marty and Rizzo in 1978 classic Grease was the model for a thousand imitations, and the costume department appears to have had a whale of a time selecting each outfit for the scene. From Marty’s red kimono, gifted by lover Bobby (a culturally astute marine, based in Korea), and Sandra ‘lousy with virginity’ D’s floor-length white cotton nightgown, an eternal symbol of her purity worthy of Desdemona herself, to rebellious Rizzo’s oversized men’s shirt – conveniently transformed into an outfit when she decides to shimmy down the drainpipes for a ride in the T-Birds’ car – each captures its wearer’s personality perfectly.
Blue Velvet, 1986
Although you’re most likely to remember the instances of nudity, sniffing and sexual subversion in David Lynch’s 1986 cult classic Blue Velvet, the moment when Jeffrey – interrupted in his snooping by Dorothy’s unexpected arrival home – bustles himself into her closet and watches her strip down to her black lace underwear is surprisingly revealing. Standing there, unaware that she is being watched, Dorothy is fully exposed in spite of the partial coverage the scalloped bra and plain black knickers offer. As Nicholas Rombes of The Blue Velvet Project notes, “the vulnerability of Dorothy at this point – in all her imperfect human beauty, which makes her even more beautiful – is perhaps just as shocking as the coming violence.”
The most impressive Wonderbra in manufacture couldn’t compete with the black leather cleavage-enhancing construction Halle Berry donned to play Catwoman in the 2004 fantasy of the same name, but her cleavage is far from the most interesting thing about her costume. Encircled with leather belts and given partial anonymity by her ear-topped mask, Berry’s leather trousers are cut through with devoré-shaped claw-marks – ornaments from battles past – while her elbow-length zip-up gloves are tipped with steel. Make no mistake: this is sex appeal for the sake of lulling one’s enemies into a false sense of security, not for traditional seduction.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961
Many a woman has dreamt of nailing nightwear as effortlessly and with as much charm as Holly Golightly, played by the inimitable Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 classic film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s does. Who could forget that unforgettable moment when a reluctant but flawless Golightly, sound asleep after a long night of dancing, wakes at the incessant ringing of her buzzer by a handsome new tenant named Paul? Sleeping nude but for a turquoise silk eye-mask adorned with gold eyelashes, and a pair of purple tasselled earplugs, she hazily searches for something suitable to wear and pulls on a man’s white cotton tuxedo shirt to meet him at the door. Her beehive is vaguely tousled but she’s otherwise immaculate, and the bedtime look instantly became one of the most recognisable ever filmed.
Foxy Brown, 1974
Pam Grier stars as one-woman hit squad Foxy Brown in the 1974 blaxploitation film of the same name, in which she performs the inconceivable feat of avenging her dead boyfriend, by killing off the white supremacists responsible for his death, ostensibly reinventing the role of the black woman in Hollywood cinema in the process. Unashamed of her womanhood – she conceals her handgun in her afro and her bra alternately – Grier transformed her character into a veritable symbol of sexuality and female empowerment.
Her chosen revenge is often decidedly sexual: she castrates one enemy, for example, presenting his severed penis to his girlfriend in a pickle jar. In the above scene, she and her newly befriended call girl partner Claudia pretend to seduce a corrupt judge in a hotel room, removing their gowns to reveal a purple satin lingerie set and a sweet white ensemble respectively, before stripping him from the waist down and throwing him into the corridor to be publicly mocked by his peers.
Some Like It Hot, 1959
An oldie but a goodie, the impromptu cocktail party thrown by Sugar (played by Marilyn Monroe) and sax player disguised as a woman, Jerry (Jack Lemmon), is quickly disrupted when the rest of the pair’s all-female jazz band attempts to join them in bunk number seven on a sleeper train in slapstick comedy, Some Like it Hot. A quiet seduction accompanied by a swig of whiskey quickly transforms into a carriage-wide fête, complete with crackers, wine and vermouth, in which the nightwear worn by the band is nothing less than brilliant. Sugar’s dark, fur-lined negligée stands out in stark contrast with the modest nighties, pyjama-sets and hairnets worn by her fellow musicians, while both Jerry and Joe’s nightdresses – long, dowdy and floral, in order to hide their maleness from the rest of the group – make for hilarious comic value.
The gold, faux-Roman interiors, elaborate jacuzzi tub, and coke-fuelled rants that fill cult classic Scarface make the demise of the film’s protagonist Tony Montana (played by an impassioned Al Pacino) unforgettable. Still, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character Elvira, his sullen and long-neglected partner, is similarly memorable, if more for her costumes than for her dramatic delivery.
Take this floor-length satin two-piece, composed of flared trousers and flowing slip top in the same fine gold tone as her sleekly bobbed hair, for example. Elevate the look with a pair of heeled mules and a freshly mixed cocktail in a cut crystal tumbler, and lean back to the reality of living a life of luxury. It takes money, after all, to spend day after day in one’s pyjamas.
From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996
Salma Hayek is a force for female sexuality at the best of times, but her role as Santanico Pandemonium in 1996 crime horror From Dusk Till Dawn is burnt onto retinas worldwide for its defiant and irresistible sensuality. She performs a seductive routine in an elaborate feather headdress and curve-contouring bikini, with a long, hissing snake writhing around her body, before standing over Quentin Tarantino’s character Richard at his table, pouring beer down her leg, and allowing him to suck the remnants from her poised toe. Hayek, whose intense phobia of snakes initially led her to assume she would have to reject the role, was conned by producer Robert Rodriguez into believing Madonna was ready to nab it from her, and spent two months in therapy before she was able to film the scene as a result. Her role is brief but impactful, punctuating what otherwise mounts to a zombie thriller (well-cast though it is) with one of the sexiest dance routines ever captured on film.
A Countess from Hong Kong, 1967
It received terrible reviews when it was released in March 1967, the New York Times even going so far as to state “the dismal truth is it is awful,” but the bedroom farce presented in the final film Charlie Chaplin was to direct, A Countess From Hong Kong, starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren as its leading characters, presents a magnificent array of nightwear. Brando, for his part, spends much of the film in a royal blue dressing gown and knee socks, while stowaway Loren borrows every pair of pyjamas, seemingly, in his possession – from a peach pair to a sweet sunshine yellow cotton – making an incredibly strong case for the sex appeal of wearing men’s pyjamas at all times, whether inside the house or out of it.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear runs until March 12, 2017 at the V&A Museum, London.